Back in 1976, when the burgeoning punk movement began transforming the rock’n’roll landscapes of London and New York, a young man named John Lydon scrawled the words “I Hate…” on his Pink Floyd t-shirt. With this one stroke, Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, the lead singer of The Sex Pistols, demarcated the past from the future: eschewing the lengthy and ponderous compositions of Floyd’s frontman, Roger Waters, Rotten and his mates set about delivering sharp, angry tunes in a compact three-minute format.
Almost 40 years later, popular music has undergone numerous other transformations, but Rotten (who now calls himself Lydon again) and Waters have remained polar opposites. And as Israelis know better than most, that’s true both inside and outside the recording studio.
Back in 2010, Lydon rounded on critics of his decision to play a gig in Tel Aviv by telling them, “I have absolutely one rule, right? Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won’t understand how anyone can have a problem with how they (the Palestinians) are treated.”
By contrast, Waters—outwardly, a much more refined and eloquent fellow—has firmly hitched himself to the movement pressing for a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Waters’s support for BDS is thought to be the reason that his scheduled appearance at the 92nd Sreet Y in New York City was canceled back in April, while more recently, he tussled with the Simon Wiesenthal Center over an accusation of anti-Semitism that stemmed from a feature of his live show, in which a Star of David is projected onto a flying inflatable pig.
In his response to the Wiesenthal Center, Waters stridently denied that he was an anti-Semite, coming out with the standard response that hating Zionism and hating Jews are completely distinct. But a subsequent letter written in August to “My Colleagues in Rock’n’Roll” —as you can see, his legendary pomposity remains unaltered—is certain to revive the charge. This time, it’s hard to see how Waters can wriggle around it.
The letter begins by citing another British musician, the violinist Nigel Kennedy, who slammed Israeli “apartheid” during a recent concert that was recorded by the BBC. “Nothing unusual there you might think,” Waters wrote, “then one Baroness Deech, (Nee Fraenkel) disputed the fact that Israel is an apartheid state and prevailed upon the BBC to censor Kennedy’s performance by removing his statement.”
Why did Waters think it necessary to point out the maiden name of Baroness Ruth Deech, a noted academic and lawyer? The answer’s obvious: before she was Deech, a name that resonates with English respectability, she was Fraenkel, a name that sounds positively, well, Jewish. And much as she might try to hide her origins, the intrepid Waters is determined to out her, along with her nefarious Jewish—sorry, I mean, Zionist—agenda.
Sarcasm aside, this is anti-Semitism of the ugliest, most primitive kind. Appropriately, Waters’s letter appeared first on the website of the Electronic Intifada, a resolutely anti-Semitic U.S.-based outfit that has emerged as one of the prime organizing platforms of the BDS movement.
The Waters letter ends as follows: “Please join me and all our brothers and sisters in global civil society in proclaiming our rejection of Apartheid in Israel and occupied Palestine, by pledging not to perform or exhibit in Israel or accept any award or funding from any institution linked to the government of Israel, until such time as Israel complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.” In case it’s not clear, in the BDS movement, such elaborate formulations are code for “until such time as the State of Israel, which was born in a state of original sin, is finally eliminated.”
Here’s the rub, though: 10 years ago, when the BDS movement was a relatively new phenomenon, statements like these would have set off a minor panic in the Jewish world. These days, we’re far more sanguine, and we’ve learned that the State of Israel can survive and flourish no matter how many graying prog-rockers like Roger Waters dedicate their lives to removing the world’s only Jewish state from the map.
A hashtag on Twitter that’s popular with pro-Israel activists, #BDSFail, neatly encapsulates my point. Responding to Waters, the Israeli model and actress Bar Refaeli, who normally sets pulses racing for other reasons, demanded that the singer remove her picture from the multimedia show that accompanies his live set. “If you’re boycotting,” she teased, “go all the way.”
A Times of Israel blog by a writer who uses the name “Brian of London” helpfully listed the artists who have defied the intimidation of the BDS movement by playing in Israel. Among them: Depeche Mode, Julio Iglesias and the inimitable Pet Shop Boys. Not mentioned: Morrissey, the former lead singer of The Smiths, one of my favorite bands, who asked his Tel Aviv audience in 2012, “Mah Nishmah?” (“How Are You?” in Hebrew), and wrapped himself in the Israeli flag.
As unpalatable as this may be for Roger Waters’s digestion, the plain truth is that the BDS movement has failed. Its original aim was to replicate the massive outcry against South African apartheid during the 1980s, when songs like “Free Nelson Mandela” and “(I Ain’t Gonna Play) Sun City” ruled the airwaves. Instead, it has remained a fringe movement, a minor irritant that has had precious little impact on Israel’s economic life and garners media attention only when someone like Waters decides to shoot his mouth off.
We’ve arrived at this happy situation for several reasons, among them the growing realization, as articulated by John Lydon, that there is something absurd about boycotting Israel when the states that surround it engage in egregious human rights violations. Waters won’t play in Israel, but he was quite happy to play in Dubai in 2007—an Arab city almost entirely built by slave labor imported from Muslim countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. If other stars grasp the appalling hypocrisy this represents, then having Roger Waters indulge his hatred of Israel at every opportunity is a price worth paying.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.
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